The venerable and much-beloved Thích Nhất Hạnh has written out 14 precepts (think: instructions) for those of us interested in engaged Buddhism. None of them is horrifically difficult, in itself (well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘difficult’…). But taken as a whole? They’re world-shattering.
Or perhaps I mean world-building? But that’s the challenge: how do you change/ build a world w/out shattering it? How do we move from what is to what might be? That’s where the 14 precepts come in. I thought it might be helpful for others to revisit them, here:
Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth. I love this: a healthy flexibility. When was the last time a religious leader told you NOT to be bound by dictum??
Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others’ viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times. You had me at life-long learning. What teacher could pass that up?
Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education. However, through compassionate dialogue, help others renounce fanaticism and narrow-mindedness. I wish I knew how to do this. In every way I can, I try to remember to demonstrate that Buddhism is not, necessarily, a religion, but more a bone-deep/ life-long philosophy. You can be a Buddhist Christian (Thomas Merton), a Buddhist Jew (Norman Fischer), a Buddhist Unitarian… The Buddha never said he was a god, any more than Plato did.
Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world. This is where I see much of my own path: trying to awaken others to the reality of suffering in our world. It’s everywhere, even as we’d like to pretend it’s not here in America…
Do not accumulate wealth while millions are hungry. Do not take as the aim of your life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure. Live simply and share time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I feel guilty all the time about this one, knowing how I love my car, my coffee, my tea… A soft sweater in the fall. Sigh…
Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of your hatred. Tonglen is about all that helps me on this one — waaaay too easy for me to get riled at what some mean-hearted jerk says or does! 🙂
Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness. Sometimes I almost get this one. Birds on the deck can bring me back. So can rescuing a wasp from the windowsill, or digging in the garden. Writing a poem — even a zombie tanka! — often has the same effect. And holding my grandson? Always ~
Do not utter words that can create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small. Believe it or not, I REALLY try to watch my big mouth! 🙂
Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety. In every utterance, I try to remember this. What is needed? What is helpful? What is kind? These are critical. And of course: what is wrong and needs righting?
Do not use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit, or transform your community into a political party. A religious community, however, should take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts. I don’t believe that engaged Buddhism need have a political affiliation, but I do find that today’s conservatives too often place profit above people. And that saddens me beyond politesse. Still, I try to remember to meet people in their good intentions.
Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Do not invest in companies that deprive others of their chance to live. Select a vocation that helps realise your ideal of compassion. There is no job I would take that harms others. I left the one job I had that was rude to people, many years ago. Compassion is all we have…
Possess nothing that should belong to others. Respect the property of others, but prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth. Here we get into one of the many forms of engagement I find critical: conservation and environmental activism. Without a planet — without bees and birds and the ocean and clean air — we have nothing. I take this one pretty seriously. And I wish more of us did…
Do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realisation of the Way. (For brothers and sisters who are not monks and nuns:) Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. In sexual relations, be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings. Another hard one. Far too often, we forget to put our own oxygen masks on first. We give & give & give until we are empty. Burn-out is the term we use, but empty works for me.
Each of us is a piece of the puzzle that is our messy, flawed, fragmented & infinitely beautiful world. If we put into practice only a few of these daily, how might that heal our broken places? Worth a thought, isn’t it?
There are signs from the universe (I really do believe the universe talks to us — but you do have to listen) that I need to work on this. The anger, I mean. But here’s my problem:
A dear friend sent me a short piece he’s working on, the day after the Trayvon Martin. verdict. It was about an incident from his recent past, where a director he was working with told him ‘not to bring black to it.’ How can an African American NOT bring his or her racial identity to the table? What are black Americans supposed to do with a comment like that??
And what does that comment even mean?? What kind of idiot would say that to someone??
I keep fighting this tired fight because it’s important. To me. To my friends. To members of my family. And — I humbly insist, over & over — to America. To the world.
But it takes a huge toll. And yes, sometimes I worry it’s my identity. I don’t want that to be true, but I know at least one of my own sisters has muted me on FB. She gets tired of politics.
I don’t blame her, really. I’m tired of the idiocy that masquerades as American politics as well. 🙂 And I’m struggling (a very different kind of struggle) to remember that even unkind people are sons, & daughters, & wives, & husbands. And fathers & mothers. And people I know…So it behooves me not to swear (which I do far too frequently! and just got chewed out for, professionally!). To remember I make others crazy, too.
There is more to who I am, of course, than my ongoing fight for social justice. Still, I remember even at the tender age of 9, not long after my youngest sister was born, standing on one side of iron gates. A very young Việtamese woman — certainly not twice my age at the time — held her baby out to me, pleading w/ me to take it. To feed it. And I knew even then that life was not fair. My sister was upstairs in our villa, well-fed, clean, destined to be educated & protected. This woman’s baby had nothing. And probably never would.
Some piece of me responded then — and continues to respond — to that inequity. Later, I would stand up to bullies (sometimes w/ a broom, but you use what you have!), sometimes w/ words, sometimes w/my own two fists. I refuse to be one of those silent onlookers to life’s injustices. So maybe this ongoing battle is my identity. It certainly is what led me to engaged Buddhism.
But I want to believe it’s not the struggle that defines me so much as it is the people behind each statistic, each act of racism and moral cowardice. It’s the idiot who doesn’t understand that Ben can’t peel his race away like a wet shirt. That my niece can’t choose the way she loves, anymore than I can choose the size of my heart. It’s the unnamed men & women & children who stand mute, locked within safely distanced numbers. Each of these has a part in my struggles.
My struggle has identity, but it isn’t really mine. It’s all of ours. I hope you think so, too.
July 22nd is Dharma Day for observant Buddhists. There are three ‘jewels’ in Buddhist tradition: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the easy one. 🙂 Sangha is the community on the Buddhist path with you, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.
‘Dharma‘ is commonly understood to mean the Buddha’s teachings, but it’s more than that. In Hindu faith — which is what the Buddha was born into — it connotes your sacred duty. I like the idea that this meaning backgrounds what the Buddha taught. And that’s what we celebrate on Dharma Day: the Buddha as teacher.
It’s the first day of (or after, depending on who you ask 🙂 ) the Buddha’s enlightenment. He rises from beneath the bodhi tree and goes off looking for his former disciples, to share his new-found knowledge. Dharma Day marks that moment, when the Buddha began to teach.
Traditionally Dharma Day is spent reflecting on the Buddha’s teachings. It also begins Vassa, sometimes known as ‘Buddhist Lent,’ since many Buddhists give up eating meat, smoking, and other luxuries. Kind of a cross between Ramadan and Lent. 🙂
So I’m considering what I will do to mark the passing of Dharma Day this year. What one of the Buddha’s teachings do you find most useful? And why?
The Virginia gubernatorial candidate from the Republican party says my niece has no soul. My lovely niece, who is intellectually brilliant, wise and funny, and as kind and good as dawn. Because her partner is another woman — another lovely, talented, witty, and amazing woman — he says neither one has a soul. I won’t give his name space in this blog. I’m that angry.
This same man is trying to have certain sexual acts banned — even between married couples, in the privacy of their home. This same man argued that the Roman goddess Virtus, on the state seal, should have her bare breast covered. Really, dude? This is an issue of critical significance to the state?
So I suppose I shouldn’t be as angry as I am. The guy is obviously a few watts shy of a night light. But in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t deal well with threats, slurs, or insults to those I love. And when you couple family with the many dear friends of mine who have equally dear same-sex partners, I’m livid.
Who does this guy think he is? Who abdicated and made him God? My understanding — and I’m reasonably well-versed in multiple wisdom traditions — is that only the Creator has jurisdiction over soul-production. And don’t souls only exit at death? NO ONE, to my knowledge, is born without a soul. And even Hitler — surely the meanest of the mean (well, maybe Stalin gets in there, and Attila the Hun) — had a soul. Whether or not he forfeited it after death…no one this side of the dirt knows.
I always wonder, when people make hateful, hurtful comments like his, if they think of their own nieces. If they think of their cousins, maybe even children they’ve known since babyhood. It’s okay, I guess — in their worlds — to say these terribly WRONG things about other people’s family members. Because there is NO family in America today who does not know well someone who is gay. And every one of these bigoted weapons of comments strikes a child: a tween struggling with why she doesn’t find the guys in her school worth giggling over. A 14-year-old boy, wondering what he has to live for in a community where he sees only hatred for who he is. A college student who suddenly wakes up to realise that his/her disinterest in the opposite sex has significance.
We‘re contemplating moving to Virginia, as my elder son, DIL, and perfect grandson will soon be living in Blacksburg. Under, possibly, the jurisdiction of this mean-spirited troll. (I can think of far more precise terms — none suitable for print.) How on earth did this country of freedom, of men & women who fled persecution from governments, become a place where a man like this can represent an entire political party in a state like Virginia? I don’t get it.
I’m trying to remember that unkind people — people who can say evil, hurtful, scarring things to my family, to yours, to their own — also need compassion. That such people have to live w/ their own bigotry, always the product of fear. I try hard to remember that.
But it’s very difficult. And sometimes? I just don’t get it.